LONDON - The most extreme diagnosis of Italy's problem was offered by journalist Peter Popham in the Independent. He blamed it all on the Vatican: "Imagine that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945 but instead cut a deal with the new West German government, giving him continued sovereignty over a small patch of Berlin - and continued intellectual hegemony over the millions he had brainwashed during the previous decade Italy's Vatican problem is a lot like that, with the difference that the Church has been wielding its mind-control for nearly two millennia."
The trigger for this extraordinary outburst was the week-long political crisis that nearly brought down Prime Minister Romano Prodi's center-left government, Italy's 61st since World War II. Yet Mr. Popham is not anti-Catholic. It's just that, like most people who spend a lot of time in Italy, he has simultaneously fallen in love with the country and utterly lost patience with it.
It's an affliction he shares with a great many Italians: No country except Argentina spends more time debating what is wrong with it. He blamed the Vatican on this occasion because the crisis was provoked by a government plan to legalize "civil unions" (marriages by another name) even for gays, which greatly annoyed the Catholic Church. But it's more complicated than that.
The vote that Mr. Prodi's government lost was actually on a proposal to leave 1,900 Italian troops in Afghanistan until 2011 and to double the size of an American military base outside Vicenza. Both projects are very unpopular in Italy, but they were part of the deal that created the nine-party coalition behind Mr. Prodi's government, and only two senators from the far left defected in the key vote on Feb. 21.
The government would still have won the vote if senator-for-life Giulio Andreotti had not unexpectedly voted against it. But the 87-year-old Andreotti, seven times prime minister and often known as the "Prince of Darkness," is a strong supporter of NATO and the American alliance, so why would he vote against that bill? Because it was going to be so close that his surprise "no" vote could bring Mr. Prodi's government down.
Why would he want to do that? Mr. Andreotti has always been very close to both the Catholic Church and the Mafia, but on this occasion it was the former tie that mattered. The Vatican wanted to kill the "civil union" proposal, which required killing Mr. Prodi's government. Mr. Andreotti just seized the opportunity that presented itself. It worked, too. A week later Mr. Prodi managed to revive his coalition government, but this time their agreed program does not include the "civil union" project.
Most Italians would agree that there is something wrong with their country, but it's not the Church that bothers them. The stagnant economy makes matters worse - even Spain will overtake Italy in per capita income in a couple of years - but there is an underlying sense of frustration that permeates Italian life.
For almost 40 years after 1945, while the rest of Europe was growing and changing very fast, Italy grew but didn't change, because politics and all of society were frozen in a deeply conservative and profoundly corrupt pattern. In order to keep the huge Communist party from winning power and taking Italy out of NATO, the Christian Democratic party had to be kept in power permanently - and it was, thanks to foreign money and foreign intelligence services, to its alliance with the Catholic Church, and to its other alliance with the Mafia.
That system ended 15 years ago when the Christian Democrats imploded in a blizzard of corruption scandals and Communism simultaneously went out of fashion, but Italians have a lot of lost time to make up.
Moreover, the decision to swap the lira for the euro was a disaster for Italy, because it lost the ability to remain competitive by continually devaluing its currency. Italian politics are still poisonous, the justice system is a joke, and the efforts at reform are endlessly sabotaged by the beneficiaries of the current state of affairs.
But that is about what you'd expect at this stage of the process of modernization, because it is a process, and it takes time. Spain is about 30 years into a similar process, dating from the death of Franco and the end of fascism, and it is thriving at every level. Italy is 15 years in, and feeling the strain. But it will probably get there in the end.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.